After our stop in Bordeaux and the surrounding area, we had some choices to be made as to where our next stop was to be…we were heading north along the coast to Nantes. We wanted to spend some time in Brittany and Nantes was going to be our starting point. We had to make a choice as to where the in between stop would after leaving Bordeaux; head inland to Poitiers or head for somewhere on the coast like La Rochelle? We enjoyed catching some of the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine while we in Bordeaux and heading to either Poitiers or La Rochelle would continue this story. The fact that La Rochelle was famous for its oysters was the tipping point.
We made our way to the suburbs of La Rochelle to ‘Camping Beaulieu’, our van park for the two nights we stayed in this city. It was our best camper park so far with excellent amenities, even a covered swimming pool and spa to ease the muscles from all our bike riding. We would be doing more bike riding as it was a decent 30-minute ride to the harbour/centre of La Rochelle. Luckily there was a reasonable amount of bike path along the way so by the second day it was a very easy ride home to our camping ground.
The route of our first day’s ride is illustrated by the map above which shows the last section of our journey towards the centre from Porte Dauphine, one of the last remnants of the fortifications of La Rochelle, left over from the troubled times during the later middle ages. This lovely little gate with its smiling sun symbol of Louis XIV above it is a reminder that La Rochelle needed walls to defend itself against the armies of Cardinal Richelieu during the Catholic-Protestant religious wars in France in the 17th century. La Rochelle was under siege in 1627-28 and 22000 Hugenot citizens died from starvation before the city was defeated. Our old friend Vauban, Louis XIV’s military architect came to La Rochelle much later in the 17th century to rebuild the fortifications and leave his kingly master’s insignia above this gate.
From Porte Dauphine we rode straight down to the business heart of La Rochelle, Place de Verdun, and found ourselves some bike racks so that we could walk unencumbered around the old centre of La Rochelle. Place Verdun is large paved area which would be used by the city for markets and open-air events when required. On one side of this square is the Cathedral of St Louis, a reasonably plain ‘neo-classical’ cathedral whose bare façade hides the usual back history of most of the churches of Western France. It has an attached bell tower that has survived the centuries, despite being used as a gun tower when Louis XIII’s forces were attacking the city in 1627-28. The previous church on this site (St Bartholomew) had been destroyed by the iconoclastic Hugenot citizens in 1528 and its replacement finished off by the revolutionaries in the late 18th century. Today’s stoic Cathedral (started in 1742) looked a little nervous wondering what changes in Religious viewpoints might see its demise in the future.
It was also in Place Verdun that we encountered the continuing story of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Her marriage to Louis VII in Bordeaux lasted 15 years but did not produce a son and she gained an annulment from this marriage from the Pope. She immediately became engaged to the Duke of Normandy, the future Henry II of England. Her marriage to Henry produced some troubled but famous sons who went on the become the bane of Henry’s life. His eldest son, Henry, hasn’t overly troubled the history books, but his younger sons Richard and John have been the subject of many stories and films up until the present day, centred around the likely fictional character of Robin Hood. Place Verdun was where Henry and Eleanor built a castle, Chateau Vauclair, at the end of the 12th Century. This was in the early days of La Rochelle’s harbour whose fortifications had been started by Eleanor’s father, William X of Aquitaine. The castle is long gone today except for sections of its fortifications under Place Verdun which were revealed by recent archaeology; the base of a tower can be seen in the image to the left covered by glass for visitors to view. However, in the diagrams below (Thank you Wikipedia) there are some indications of the type of structure it was, also suggesting that the original La Rochelle harbour came all the way up to the current centre of town. The site of today’s St Louis Cathedral at the side of Place Verdun was part of the area within the walls of the chateau.
From Place de Verdun we headed down into the narrow streets of old La Rochelle. Not long into our walk we came across the Hotel de Ville and by taking the photo of the upper half of this gorgeous building, I was able to avoid all the hoardings around the renovation work on this large structure. The town hall caught fire back in 2013 and is still under complex renovation required by a building with a heritage of four hundred years.
From the sad spectacle of the Hotel de Ville, we walked down past the 18th century Church of St Saveur to the old port of La Rochelle. The views of this thousand year old harbour are spectacular, no matter where you are pointing your camera. The two towers that stand sentinel on each side of the harbour mouth are the first landmarks that attract the visitors’ attention.If you walk out to the towers and look back at Rochelle, the view is just as spectacular.The walk along the promenade out to the towers at the opening of the harbour is beautiful in all directions, even the graffiti on the buildings to the left of the harbour look like masterpieces of the art world.Our walk around the harbour led us back to the other side where crowded restaurants and bars lined the foreshore. It was time to settle down with a great view of the harbour and sample La Rochelle’s famous oysters washed down with the local ruby beer.
There are three towers that were part of the fortifications that protected the sea wall around La Rochelle Harbour, two of which we had a close view of as we had our mid-afternoon snack and drink. On the left of the entry to the harbour stands the Tour St-Nicholas. It was built to enhance the defences of the increasingly important harbour of La Rochelle and was to be a significant feature in the battles to control this important city on the Bay of Biscay. The tower on the other side of the harbour, Tour de La Chaine was built to be the main anchor point for the large chain that was anchored on to Tour St-Nicholas to prevent the entry into La Rochelle’s old town by enemy ships. This was the case for example during the ‘Wars of Religion’ in the late 16th century, referred to earlier when Cardinal Richelieu’s forces attacked the city. It is believed that at one point there was an archway stretching between the top of the two towers but this may be just architectural wishful thinking. The third harbour tower, Tour de la Lanterne is further north along the outer harbour and we would have a good look at it the next day. All three towers can be visited and all have ‘expositions temporaires’ contained within them.
The harbour of La Rochelle has been the centre of some brutal events in history such as the siege of La Rochelle in 1572-3, a blockade of 14 months leading to surrender and ruin for the city. However it has also been the inspiration for many artists over the centuries, drawn by its complex beauty. This is particularly the case with next major feature of the harbour precinct, the Grosse Horlage (Big Clock!) which originally was the main gate through the wall of the old city at the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine; it was built by her father in the 12th century. It became a clock tower in 1478.
Like the other ‘Tours’ of the city, the Grosse Horlage is used for displays of the city heritage. Given its proximity to ‘Place du Temple’, it is no surprise that it has had displays of the City’s association with the Knights Templar, whose rise and fall story is still one of the most magnetic and enigmatic tales taken up by the 21st century. The problem with the Templar story is that it has become the love-child of conspiracy theorists for the last fifty years and so determining what is historically accurate is difficult. We know they were an order of knights/monks developed to protect pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land from 1120. We know they were militarily successful and expanded rapidly in wealth, particularly as they developed almost modern systems of banking. We know they were destroyed by the French King Phillip IV in 1310 and he confiscated their available wealth. The link with La Rochelle, apart from the street names, is that “The Knights Templar had a strong presence in La Rochelle since before the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine who exempted them from duties and gave them mills in her 1139 Charter. La Rochelle was for the Templars their largest base on the Atlantic Ocean…” etc. (Wikipedia) But for history conspiracists still looking for the Templar treasures, the best bit of the La Rochelle/Templar connection is as follows…
“Persistent but unsubstantiated rumours speak of the treasure being smuggled by night from the Paris preceptory, shortly before the arrests. According to these rumours, it was transported by wagons to the coast presumably to the Order’s naval base at La Rochelle and loaded into eighteen galleys, which were never heard of again. Whether this is true or not…” (Holy Blood and Holy Grail…1982)
I would certainly like to believe that the innocent Templars escaped in 18 ships from La Rochelle with their treasure and buried it somewhere in the new world; unfortunately there is no credible historical evidence for this story. Phillip IV probably confiscated all the treasure. The modern tourist just has to be happy with the story and the delightful narrow back streets of La Rochelle where Templars probably walked back in the 12th century.
On our second morning of visiting La Rochelle, we found it much easier to find our way to Place Verdun and park our bikes than the previous morning. We decided we would walk towards the large park running parallel to the old town and find our way down to the sea via this route. Just as the street name ‘Rue des Templiers’ gives a record of the past history of La Rochelle, the name of the street that runs from the old gate, Porte Dauphine’ down to the Lanterne Tower is called Chemin des Remparts. It is where the old defensive wall of the city ran and on the other side of this street, there still runs a stream that would have been part of the defences of the city designed by Vauban. On the late 17th century map below, the yellow line starts from the ‘place’ where the old Chateau was located (Place Verdun) and follows the fortifications to the coast. The angular nature of the wall was Vauban’s design to resist canon fire, a technological change that didn’t put off for too many more years the failure of all city walls throughout Europe to resist enemy fire.
At the start of the park there was a striking memorial to the Pioneers of Ivory Coast (aux dionnier de la Cote D’Ivoire). It is probably with the point of view of the 21st century that the inscription sounds very curious; “in memory of the three peaceful conquerors of the Ivory Coast left La Rochelle… This monument was erected fifty years after the treaties which gave France this beautiful and rich colony.” For much of the 1700s before the Revolution, La Rochelle was the main centre for mariners exploring the new world as well as mapping the riches of Africa. The previous afternoon while walking around the old harbour, we had come across a series of noticeboards set up by the City Council to give visitors information about the harbour and its history. The text to the left speaks for itself about this period of La Rochelle history.
Our walk through Parc Charruver was a beautiful start to the morning and led us to the small zoo or ‘Parc Animalier’ at the western end of these gardens. While not having a huge variety of exhibits, there was a lot to see and the children we encountered seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. However the image of the depressed donkey sharing his yard with scratching chickens probably illustrates the usual issues thrown up by these places.
Walking out of this green space brings you to the start of the city’s beach on the right (Plage de la Concurrence) and the old town to the left. It is here where the original fortifications of La Rochelle turn left along the front of the old town and it is clear the city fathers have attempted to preserve some of Vauban’s walls as well as ensure the flow of water from the ramparts’ ditch escapes into the sea.
It is at this point of the medieval ramparts the Tour de la Lanterne was built, perhaps the most striking of the three towers along La Rochelle’s foreshore. Built sometime around the start of the 15th century, it is the oldest surviving medieval lighthouse on the Atlantic coast. Luckily it wasn’t destroyed in Cardinal Richelieu’s pulling down of La Rochelle’s fortifications in 1629. Sixty years later it was incorporated by Vauban into the new walls for this strategic city that Louis XIV demanded for his new French Empire. Like so many other gorgeous French National monuments, this tower was also used as a prison in the 17th century, mainly for offending mariners, buccaneers or pirates. Nineteenth century prisoners were more creative than standard felons and to wile away the time they etched graffiti or drawings into the stones of their cell. Tourists to Tour de la Lanterne can inspect these art works today.
After our morning walk down and along the ramparts, it was time to dive into the old centre of town for lunch, always the highlight of visiting a new French destination-the food rarely lets you down and it didn’t this day. Our next major stop on our walk up through the medieval centre of La Rochelle was the ‘Maison Henry II’, a destination I hoped would shed more light on this English King’s 70 year rule over Rochelle. Unfortunately the house commemorated Henry II but was built three centuries after his time in La Rochelle. This didn’t detract from the architecture or the landscaping of this beautiful building. Initially we thought it was being used as a government building but reading the sign on the gate explained its current function (see image above). I was wondering whether I could present myself as a creative artist engaged in lots of “critical questioning… essential to the very existence of democracy.” There didn’t appear to be a desk where I could present my CV for this role so I was moved on by my fellow travellers.
The rest of our stroll through La Rochelle led us past some beautiful houses and shops on the way to the city’s old market place (Place du Marche) built in 1835. Unfortunately it was closed on the afternoon of our visit so it was time to return to our bikes in Place de Verdun. It was a pleasant ride back to our Campervan Park and relax for the late afternoon, preparing for our drive tomorrow to our next destination up the west coast of France…Nantes!
APPENDIX 1: LA ROCHELLE PUBLIC ART
An art piece on a wall on Esplanade Saint-Jean d’Acre near the Lantern Tower.
“From generation to generation” … a work by Bruce Krebs.
“It’s the story of people reading through the minds of people who read, themselves in other people’s minds, and so on … Like the transfer of a culture from generation to generation … But sometimes, one of them refuses to read, and in his wake, everything gets worse, and there is no recourse.”
APPENDIX 2: The Fate of the Templars
If you are interested in the story of what happened to the Templars, you could do no better than read Maurice Druon’s novel The Iron King. This tells the story of Phillip IV’s decimation of the Templars. Druon went on to write a series of seven novels about the machinations of the France’s 14th century monarchs but be warned, they are addictive and will cause late nights and sleep loss.